Brandywine Creek flows leisurely through Indiana’s Shelby, Hancock and Franklin Counties. It is a tributary of the Big Blue River, whose waters successively empty into the Driftwood, White and Wabash rivers, part of the great, interlaced network of waterways draining into the Ohio and then the Mississippi, bound for the Gulf of Mexico. In Greenfield, Indiana the stream wends its way through the local James Whitcomb Riley Park.
The creek is narrow and quiet here in places, and children play alongside its banks. After passing through town it meanders through forest where tall trees crowd its banks. As the Brandywine makes its way through the woods, it passes under a bridge on the Pennsy Trail, a hike and bike path following the route of the old Pennsylvania Railroad. The stream’s name originates from a story that some pioneers cracked open a bottle of peach brandy beside its banks in celebration when they entered the region.
Here, somewhere close to the Pennsy Trail Bridge, there was once a swimming hole frequented by the beloved poet James Whitcomb Riley and his friends in the 1850s. One of Riley’s most famous poems is “The Old Swimmin’-Hole,” in which an older man visits the swimming hole of his youthful days and feels the ache of time passing—and the keen edge of his own mortality.
A swimming hole is a pool of water, usually located near a waterfall, or somewhere within or along the side of a flowing freshwater source, such a creek, river, stream or natural spring, where there is enough depth for swimming. When Riley was older the hole filled with silt and the section of the creek became flush with the rest of the stream. Another swimming hole formed later on along the Brandywine in what became Riley Park and was enjoyed by Riley’s successors. Before the rise of municipal pools, especially for people nowhere near an ocean or lake, relief from the summer heat often came from a plunge into a local river, stream, or even a canal, and swimming holes formed in freshwater sources were popular.
The image of boys and young men splashing around in the local swimming holes is part of the iconography of nineteenth and early twentieth century rural America. It’s usually males who are pictured swimming naked out in the local waters, which raises for me the question as to whether or not the girls did the same thing at separate places, swam clothed or weren’t allowed to do so at all given the standards at the time. The cultural representations are usually always of boys and young men at these places.
Even today in rural America kids swim and cool off in local streams and creeks where swimming holes exist. Some are deep enough for swimmers to plunge into them from an overhanding ledge or swing out into them from a rope. There are also locations sought out in places across the U.S. by people who want to swim in remote fresh waters. Outdoor swimming in rivers, lakes, and streams has become especially popular in Britain in the last five years and is known in the UK as “wild swimming.”
I visited the site of Riley’s swimming hole in Greenfield, Indiana on June 2, 2017. I had just paid a visit to the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in town. I asked Stacey Poe, the coordinator for the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum for the city of Greenfield, about the location of Riley’s old swimming hole, and she gave me directions. The location is just a short drive from the Riley Home. I parked in a lot alongside the Pennsy Trail and walked a short distance down the path to the bridge. I spent about a half an hour there, gazing down into the water on either side of the bridge and taking photographs.
After many years of familiarity with Riley’s poem, I enjoyed seeing the swimming spot Riley frequented as a boy, even if the hole itself and the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge are long gone. I felt the railroad’s disappearance from the landscape and the serene vibe of people walking and biking the Pennsy Trail were a return to the quieter world Riley knew there. I’ve always enjoyed standing on the ground of historical sites and visiting places connected to writers and renowned works of literature. There’s an immediacy about seeing a place with my own eyes that appeals to me. It brings it alive in the here and now and makes people, things and events more tangible. Riley’s boyhood home and the swimming hole site richly evoked his Hoosier frontier days and added a spicy zest to his entertaining verse for me. I found a new appreciation for why past generations loved his poems.
I have swum in lakes, rivers and oceans, but never a swimming hole. As a kid I spent hours playing in the West Fork of the Mill Creek, which flowed through the woods below my neighborhood, but there wasn’t depth enough for a swimming hole, and even if one existed, the water quality wasn’t safe for complete immersion. The Mill Creek meanders throughout Cincinnati and its encompassing county of Hamilton. During frontier days it was a vibrant waterway. It’s been tamed since then, and is channeled in areas near industrial sections of the city, but in many places it’s a sylvan stream traveling through suburban parks and woodlands.
My father, who is now ninety-three years old, knew a world much closer to Riley’s. The Kokosing River, known in earlier times as either Owl Creek or the Vernon River, flows near my dad’s boyhood home in the west end of Mount Vernon, Ohio, located in the east-central portion of the state. Johnny Appleseed had an orchard along the Kokosing in what is now downtown Mt. Vernon. His orchard site is now under water as the river’s course has changed over time. In the 1930s my father, his brothers and friends spent a lot of hot summer days “down at the B.A.B” on the Kokosing.
“What’s the B.A.B.?” I asked him.
“Bare Ass Beach,” he replied.
Like so many other places around the country, especially in the days before municipal pools were established, the local waters were a place to cool off and have fun. These locations have their special appeal. Unlike the contained and chlorine-filled waters of a pool, the swimmer is in nature. It can be a world of murky depths, rock shelves, cattails and other waterside growth. Fish and turtles may inhabit the waters the swimmers visit. And there is always the mysterious and inexorable flow of water, moving in its course as it has done for centuries.
I can picture the Kokosing and the Brandywine of years ago. I can see the stones encrusted with layers of fossils, the rushes at water’s edge, the eroded earth of hillsides near the banks, small islands in midstream along their channels, the trees leaning their branches over the water. I can imagine resting on a large flat stone rich with the sun’s heat, nodding in and out of sleep on a summer afternoon, one with the warmth and water.
This poem of Riley’s was one that helped make his name and set his career in motion. The poem first appeared in a newspaper and was later featured in The Old Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, a book published in 1882 and attributed to Riley’s rural persona, “Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone.” This entire selection of poems had first appeared one by one in the Indianapolis Journal as written by Boone, a figure slyly introduced by Riley in the paper’s pages as an uneducated farmer with an affinity for poetic expression. “The Old Swimmin’-Hole” was published in the paper on June 17, 1882, and the remaining poems appeared at intervals through September.
Riley had published verse in Indiana newspapers since 1874. He had started off in life as a sign painter and later a musician and storyteller for traveling shows, then became a reporter for small town Indiana papers where he began publishing verse.
He got into trouble for a hoax: writing a poem called “Leonanie” in 1877 and passing it off as a lost work of Edgar Allan Poe’s. This got him fired from his job with the Anderson Democrat. But he bounced back, published more poetry, and began giving readings and making a name for himself as a poet and performer. The Old Swimmin’-Hole and ‘Leven More Poems sold well and the public wanted more. Riley obliged.
Riley’s Benjamin is a man feeling the weight of his mortality and the relentlessness of time. He has come back to the old swimming hole.
Here is the poem:
Oh! The old swimmin’-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was lying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc’t ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin’ out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it’s hard to part ferever with the old swimmin’-hole.
Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin’ up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time’s tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin’-hole
Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How pleasant was the journey down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o’fun on hands at the old swimmin’-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin’-hole.
Thare the bulrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder’s four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost a of daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze’s controle
As it cut acrost some orchard to’rds the old swimmin’-hole.
Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin’-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.
James Whitcomb Riley doesn’t receive a lot of critical attention today. He is still well known in Indiana, and Riley and his work are familiar to older readers who know him from poetry anthologies, high school English textbooks or from relatives who read or quoted him. Riley tends to get more attention as a historical or cultural figure—a public poet and entertainer who crafted a distinct Midwestern identity and spoke to a national audience, who tapped into a yearning for America’s earlier rural past and homespun pleasures as the country was becoming increasingly industrial and urban. The Riley homes in Greenfield and Indianapolis still draw plenty of visitors.
Riley is considered a minor poet. His volume of collected poems is a mighty doorstopper of a book, and it seems fair to say that he wrote a lot of doggerel. But a selection of his best poems, such as The Best of James Whitcomb Riley, edited by Donald C. Manlove, makes for entertaining reading.
“The Old Swimmin’-Hole” is one of his best known and best loved poems. I enjoy and appreciate Riley. We don’t go to Riley for what we find in poets such as William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost or Marianne Moore. Riley is a storyteller and an entertainer, the kind of poet whose work is fun to read aloud. I do consider “The Old Swimmin’-Hole” one of his best poems, one that is rich in imagery and one with some stronger, more fibrous emotional weight to it.
The poem clearly has an elegiac quality. The speaker, at the beginning, is feeling the passage of time, and the days spent at the swimming hole are part of a paradisal world in childhood, time closer to birth itself—the speaker looks back to a world in which he and the others enter mortality as the eyes of angels watch them go into the world of birth and pain.
He remembers his time in the sycamore tree and looking down into the water. I suppose you could argue there’s an echo of Narcissus here—the youth gazing in wonder at his own reflection in the water and then plunging into the water towards his own reflection—“it made me love myself.” But one could argue as well that this is just a child’s joy—-he is thrilled with his life, his play and the world of the swimming hole. All is changed now—“Time’s tuck his toll.” This world is gone, and time has pulled him into the world of aging and adult responsibility.
In the third stanza we learn that the appeal of the swimming hole was such that it pulled students away from the schoolhouse. On warm days the lure of the swimming hole was too much to resist. The lines about the imprint of feet in the dusty path seems to suggest that the boys ran to the hole, leaving the mark of their feet more deeply in the earth, such was its appeal. But the time for tears has come to mourn the loss of those swimming hole days—-the tears are equated with the rain that would fall in heavy drops upon the creek water.
The poem swells to a kind of climax in the fourth stanza, which is full of nature imagery: sunshine, shadow, bulrushes, apple blossoms, lilies—this is an abundant world, the flora and fauna of pre-industrial Indiana. It is as if all the glories of nature convey the idyllic nature of those days, times in which the boys were one with the world around them. It also sets up a natural world that has been transformed in the final stanza. For young kids at play outdoors, especially in a beautiful wooded area, the earth can truly feel like Paradise. Their childhood is one with the pioneer days of the early republic.
In the last stanza, the speaker recalls the last time he visited the swimming hole. The scene was “all changed, like the change in my face”—the tender face of the young boy is replaced with the weathered features of the older man. The railroad has come, the diving log is long vanished below the waters or even swept away in the current. Nature herself has partly vanished. The trees which once stood fast along the bank are gone. It is even possible that timber from the bank was used in construction of the bridge or for railroad ties. Here we see the more modern world come to rural America—the world of industry, fast transportation and timetables. He stands looking at the swimming hole, seeing his own mortality and also the vanished Indiana landscape of his boyhood.
“The Old Swimmin’-Hole,” as noted earlier, is situated within a larger literary tradition of the elegy. It sounds the notes of nostalgia and loss that show up in other Riley poems. It also stands in a line of succession from other works in which meditation on the natural world is intertwined with a keen awareness of mutability and mortality. Although I wouldn’t say this poem has overt social commentary, the mention of the railroad and the vanished trees has me thinking of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” (1770). Goldsmith’s poem is far longer than Riley’s and much more explicit about the loss of rural community and its exploitation by those who desire wealth, but I still detect an echo of one of Goldsmith’s themes—the intrusion of forces that can threaten a community. Hovering in the background of a lot of Riley’s work is the sense that he is commemorating a world, albeit often idealized, vanishing under the forces and pressures of modern life.
Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone addresses change: the change that comes with time—the onset of his own mortality—and the intrusive presence of modern transportation, which alters the landscape. The railroad is an ambiguous presence—-the railway, with its high speed service, can transport goods to and from the town, bringing items villagers want and also transporting items of local manufacture and agriculture to distant points. It can also, by bringing strangers to town and delivering items such as newspapers and periodicals, serve as a conduit for ideas.
But the railroad is also the technological force that carries people away from the community, that accelerates the exodus from the villages to the larger towns. The railroad has this function in some of our noted works of Midwestern literature, such as Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
For a poem that can automatically summon nostalgia for some readers and listeners, “The Old Swimmin’ Hole” has a conclusion that ventures into darkness: “And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul/And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’ hole.”
The popular mind sees Riley as the purveyor of entertaining tales like “Little Orphant Annie,” “The Raggedy Man” and so on, the rustic philosopher waxing lyrical about country pleasures. But Benjamin F. Johnson shows a different side here. He longs for death, to plunge into the earth like the old swimming hole of his youth, to strip away all the burden of flesh and mortality and vanish into oblivion. I’m not going to argue that Riley was a great poet, or that this is a profound poem—but I do believe it complicates our vision of Riley.
Benjamin F. Johnson was contained within the complex figure of James Whitcomb Riley, a poet who knew firsthand the country pleasures of rural Indiana before the Civil War, a world barely removed from the frontier. He knew the circus coming to town, the wagon trains of immigrants and the rattling stagecoaches that passed his home on the National Road, bound further west. He knew the frost on the pumpkin in the fresh fall mornings, the long afternoons at the swimming hole, the dragonflies whirling above the water.
He knew Mary Alice Smith, the little girl who came to live with his family and told wild tales of spooks and goblins and became the model for Little Orphant Annie. This world, which had its poverty and ignorance and sickness along with its pleasures, was the one he knew in childhood. The damage to his father during the Civil War, the loss of his family’s beloved Greenfield house and economic standing, and the death of his beloved mother all brought that childhood world to an end.
Riley left Greenfield and moved around Indiana, seeing more of its people and towns firsthand. In time he would wander farther afield—much farther. The quiet spaces of Indiana would be replaced by the sound of the train whistle, the bustle of railroad stations, the roar of applause, the voices of porters, bellboys, publicity men, business agents and reporters as he became a celebrity. The boy who swam naked in the Brandywine became an impeccably tailored man who was an honored guest of a series of American presidents.
It gave Riley great comfort to return to Greenfield. The house he grew up in passed out of his family’s hands, but he had vowed to buy it back and he did. Riley stayed there when he visited Greenfield and enjoyed the leisurely pace in his hometown.
Riley visited the old swimming hole with some friends. There’s a picture of them there. In time the hole filled with silt and no more would boys play there on the hot summer days. A new hole took shape in the Brandywine closer to town in what became Riley Park, and a new generation swam there. But the world was changing, the modern era was taking shape, and a swimming pool was built in Riley Park.
I suspect a lot of us, especially if we have some years under our belt, can relate to Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone as he wanders over to the old swimmin’ hole. Not long ago I visited the woods where the Mill Creek flows below my old neighborhood. The well worn trails I knew as a boy are heavily overgrown now. Some are hard to find. There aren’t a lot of children in that neighborhood now as there were in those decades after World War II, and I suspect the kids just don’t play in the woods like they used to.
I also find that a recently closed swimming pool at summer’s end can also evoke this feeling of mortality and time’s relentless passing. The loud voices of watery play are absent. The depths in late summer sunlight are undisturbed by swimmers, or the pool is drained, a vast concrete pit hollowed out of the earth. Lawn furniture is stored away and lifeguard stations are empty. Another school year has begun, and soon the bright colors of autumn will decorate the surrounding trees.
Like Benjamin F. Johnson, we are bound for same destination, and succeeding generations of children will play in the water, to eventually dry themselves on the bank one last time before leaving the swimming hole for good. They may return when older and swim once more, but it will be different, and time will have them too. The generations come and go, endlessly drawn to the water bound for the sea.
The Best of James Whitcomb Riley, edited by Donald C. Manlove. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982.
James A. Whitcomb Riley: A Life by Elizabeth J. Van Allen. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999. A first rate biography of James Whitcomb Riley.
My thanks once again to Stacey Poe and the wonderful docents at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in Greenfield, Indiana.